Cody Fireams Museum Gets a Makeover

A complete makeover of the Cody Firearms Museum makes its invaluable collection more ccessible to the public

Man standing in the Cody Firearms Museum
There are five museums at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming. They’re arranged like spokes on an old wagon wheel, and the Cody Firearms Museum is the one that’s getting the most attention. It doesn't hold the best of everything, but it certainly holds one of everything in its firearms collection, which spans 800 years.Shot Business

“It’s not just guns and gun history. It’s everything,” says Ashley Hlebinsky, curator of the Cody Firearms Museum. “A lot of people who aren’t familiar with firearms see gun culture as a separatist thing that’s not part of society, when actually it’s integral to understanding society.”

The oldest gun in the museum is a multi-barrel hand cannon from the 1400s. Similar to a muzzleloader with a burning rope leading to the powder, it’s just over one foot long and predates what we know as modern-day ignition systems. It’s one of 4,000 pieces donated by Winchester to the museum in 1988, and is displayed in a glass cabinet with an all-sides view. It’s pitted due to use several centuries ago, but it’s well preserved.

“It was in our Evolution of Firearms gallery,” Hlebinsky says. “Now it will be in our Comprehensive Timeline of Firearms from 650 BCE [before common era] to modern day.”

Notice the “was” and “will be” in that statement. The hand cannon was moved—carefully. The museum’s massive $12 million makeover required a mass migration of 7,000 firearms and 20,000 firearms-related artifacts over several months during construction in late 2018 through mid-2019.

“Thirty years may not seem that old for a museum, but it actually is,” Hlebinsky says. “All of the lighting and cases and ways we take care of artifacts have changed.”

The oldest gun in the museum is a multi-barrel hand cannon (below), similar to a muzzleloader, from the 1400s. It’s one of 4,000 pieces donated by Winchester to the museum in 1988.
The oldest gun in the museum is a multi-barrel hand cannon (below), similar to a muzzleloader, from the 1400s. It’s one of 4,000 pieces donated by Winchester to the museum in 1988.Shot Business

How museums are designed has changed, too. Instead of curators designing collections, staffers are designing displays based on public interest, which often isn’t as specialized, or as complicated, as a curator’s expectations.

“We have a panel of people who know guns and professors who know history. We also have people who don’t know guns at all on the panel,” Hlebinsky says. “I learned a ton from people who don’t like firearms, because we word things in ways that don’t make sense to people who don’t know firearms.”

About 200,000 people visit the museum annually. They see the hand cannon relic. They also look at bows older than the hand cannon and new guns made today. Half of the visitors are not gun experts, so staff wanted a display everyone could relate to rather than just attracting collectors.

“We are the only gun collection in the world where 50 percent of the visitors don’t know guns,” Hlebinsky says. “We used to fall short on educating people on the history of firearms. Our new design allows people who don’t know about guns to learn about gun safety and the history of guns. Firearms have played so many different roles in history. Really understanding history is understanding the story of firearms.”

That story requires some narration. Hlebinsky spent many weeks designing 10,000 labels for new exhibits. She also managed a full-scale inventory by barcoding every piece in the collection. The result is a visitor-friendly, interactive opportunity within an upgraded experience that anyone can relate to.

“If you’re into firearms and want to see the most firearms on display anywhere in the country, we have that,” she says. “If you’re interested in history, we have that. If you’re dragged in here by a significant other, we have something for you, too. We have something for everyone.”

Booth #2428 (centerofthewest.org)

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